A pair of 2017 playoff teams will help kick off the central Ohio high school football season when Walnut Ridge travels Thursday, Aug. 23, to Mifflin for a non-league matchup of City League programs.
The contest takes place one day before most area teams open their respective seasons and will be televised on CW Columbus as part of its Thursday Night Lights programming.
The game also represents an opportunity for a pair of programs that expect to again contend for postseason berths to gain early computer points.
Mifflin opened the past three seasons against West, but the Cowboys are coming off a 5-5 finish and have a new coaching staff. The Punchers also changed their Week 2 matchup from Westland, which went 1-9 last season, to Chillicothe, which finished 8-3 and made the Division II, Region 8 playoffs.
"We wanted to get somebody (on our schedule) that would help us points-wise (if we win)," Mifflin coach Anthony Thornton said. "We played Westland the last two years and in some people's minds we shouldn't have beaten them, but we did and it did nothing for us because they went 1-9."
While Mifflin earned the third seed for the Division II, Region 7 playoffs last year and lost to sixth-seeded Ashland 48-47 in overtime in the first round to finish 8-3, Walnut Ridge was the top seed in the same region and beat eighth-seeded Canal Winchester 27-14 in the first round before falling to fifth-seeded New Albany 30-6 to finish 9-2.
The teams haven't met since 2008 when Walnut Ridge won 32-0, but Thornton and the Scots are well-acquainted with each other.
In 2014, the year before Thornton became Mifflin's coach, he served as an assistant at Walnut Ridge under Byron Mattox, who is in his 13th season heading that program.
In addition, Thornton and Walnut Ridge defensive coordinator Steve Ayers spent several years on the same coaching staff at Brookhaven, including in 2004 when both were assistants and the Bearcats won the Division II state championship.
"Me and Ayers battled every day in practice all those years I was at Brookhaven," Thornton said. "We used to get after it. It was really competitive."
Walnut Ridge has several returning skill position players from last year when it posted just the third playoff win in program history, as senior Isaiah Murphy is back at quarterback and seniors Sincere Staples (RB) and Julius Wood (WR) and junior Qian Magwood (WR) also are playing key roles.
Last season, Staples rushed for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, Wood had 26 catches for 434 yards and six scores and Murphy passed for 20 touchdowns and rushed for five others.
"We got a lot done this summer and have hit the ground running since practice started," Mattox said. "I'm happy with our progression."
Mifflin's top returnee is senior Aman Thornton, the coach's son who finished with 32 receptions for 893 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He could see time at wide receiver and tight end on offense and also plays in the secondary and serves as the kicker and punter.
Vikings, Cougars to face out-of-area tests
On Friday, Aug. 24, Northland will play host to Zeeland (Michigan) West and Beechcroft will be host to Dayton Ponitz.
Zeeland West is coming off a 7-4 season under John Shillito, who has guided three Michigan programs to state finals.
Leading the way for the Dux should be junior running back Chase Peddie, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and senior linebacker Ross Bolman, who had 147 tackles.
The Vikings return three players who should be among the City League's top players in senior running back John Branham Jr., junior quarterback Kalil Branham and senior wide receiver and defensive back Mark Lee.
"They're probably about the same size as us numbers-wise," Vikings coach Brian Staats said. "They're a perennial playoff team. ... We posted (our Week 1 opening) on the (OHSAA) website and I got an email from someone from Zeeland West wondering if we'd have any interest in playing them. I told him I wasn't telling him 'No,' but that I was going to look for somebody local. He calls back later and says, 'Why don't we meet in Toledo or southern Michigan,' but I said we needed a home game and I'm not going to go three hours when I needed a home game. It's about a 5 1/2-hour trip for them to come here."
Beechcroft lost its first three games of last season on its way to a 5-4 finish, falling in its opener against eventual Division III playoff qualifier Akron Buchtel 23-6.
Replacing the Griffins in Week 1 on the Cougars' schedule is Ponitz, which went 3-7 last season and competes in Division III, Region 12.
Among the top returnees for Ponitz are senior running back Craig Poythress and senior defensive backs Donyea McNary and Donez Cummings.
Poythress rushed for 648 yards and 10 touchdowns last season while McNary had five interceptions and three forced fumbles and Cummings had three fumble recoveries and 31 tackles.
The Cougars have a new coach in Charles Gibson, who is planning to run a spread offense that includes an emphasis on running the football.
Senior Tahjon Francis is expected to be start at running back, with junior DeShannon Butler at quarterback. Senior Elijah Hairston figures to be one of Beechcroft's top playmakers at wide receiver after being an offensive lineman last season.
Eastmoor preps to play Falcons
Eastmoor Academy lost four of its first six games last season on its way to a 6-4 finish, but it defeated Franklin Heights 46-19 in its opener.
Franklin Heights, which plays host to the Warriors on Friday, Aug. 24, went 10-2 and made the Division II, Region 7 playoffs in 2016 but is coming off a 5-5 season.
The Falcons have one of the area's top returning quarterbacks in Cody Little, who rushed for 1,183 yards and 10 touchdowns and passed for 1,576 yards and 16 scores last season.
Eastmoor, which has made six playoff appearances in 15 seasons under coach Jim Miranda, won its final four games a year ago but settled for ninth in Division III, Region 11, one spot shy of a playoff berth.
Senior running back Savon Edwards should lead the Warriors after rushing for 1,171 yards and 17 touchdowns and adding 21 receptions for 460 yards and nine scores last season.
Senior wide receiver Napoleon Harris also returns after finishing with 24 catches for 487 yards and four touchdowns, while senior Marquise Laster moves into the starting quarterback role.
Senior Miicah Coleman should be a key contributor at running back and linebacker.
"When you get to Eastmoor, there's a certain tradition and a certain work ethic and organization here," Coleman said. "It's like being with family and bonding as a team."